Directives exist in the European Union (EU) that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. European countries differ, however, in granting civil rights to homosexual couples. Peter Schmidt, who is the supervisor of the International Scientific-Educational Laboratory for Socio-Cultural Research at the HSE and a professor at Germany’s Giessen University, talked about this in a presentation of the paper Human Values, Legal Regulation, and Approval of Homosexuality in Europe: A Cross-Country Comparison. He drew attention to the fact that though public opinion on homosexuality has become more liberal, attitudes towards homosexuality diverge significantly both among individuals, and among countries.
The goal of this research was to explain how various human values affect the acceptance of homosexuality in Europe, and what the role of legislation is that guarantees sexual minorities’ rights are protected.
Aside from Peter Schmidt, the research saw the participation of Shalom Schwartz, the author of a theory of basic human values and the academic supervisor at the HSE’s International Scientific-Educational Laboratory for Socio-Cultural Research; Eldad Davidov, a professor at the University of Zurich, and Anabel Kuntz, a researcher at the University of Cologne.
The research used data from the fifth wave of the European Social Survey (ESS, 2010/2011) on 27 countries and 47,000 respondents.
Researchers analyzed the acceptance level of homosexuality, which was measured with the help of a question connected with grating equal civil rights to both homosexuals and heterosexuals. The respondents were asked to use a five-point scale to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with the idea that gay men and lesbians should have the right to decide to live according to their own ideas and desires.
One of the study’s hypotheses was that people who consider it a priority to preserve traditional values relate negatively towards the acceptance of homosexuality. “Those who adhere to traditional values perceive homosexuality as a threat to the traditional way of life [and] the traditional family. They seek to preserve the status quo,” Schmidt said. Data from the study confirm this.
Conversely, openness to change contributes to a more positive attitude towards homosexuality. Openness to change, according to Shalom Schwartz’s theory, includes hedonism, a focus on the self (including independence, freedom, and an aim towards growth and self development), and stimulation (an inclination for the extreme and drive). Proponents of universalistic values (social justice, tolerance, and equality) are also more likely to recognize the rights of sexual minorities.
Researchers analyzed the correlation between attitudes towards homosexuality and belonging to a certain religious denomination. The conclusions were fairly predictable. Orthodox and Muslim believers relate more negatively towards recognizing the rights of homosexuals, and Catholics and Protestants – less negatively.
The study’s results confirm that in former socialist countries, people are less inclined to support the acceptance of homosexuality. Residents of Latvia, Ukraine, Russia, Croatia, and Slovakia showed the highest level of disapproval, while the highest level of acceptance was seen in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, and France.
Results – Approval of Homosexuality in 27 European Countries
Note: Answers were to the question “…to what level do you agree or disagree … gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own life as they wish?”
(1= strongly disagree, 5= strongly agree).
Fifth wave of ESS, 2010 (total number of respondents: 47,428)
Source: a presentation by Peter Schmidt
The study’s key conclusion concerns the influence of legislation on attitudes towards homosexuality. The authors had initially put forward three hypotheses in this area.
The first was that acceptance of homosexuality is higher in countries whose legislative systems are more progressive towards homosexuality. This hypothesis was confirmed.
The other two, which add on to the first, are opposites. The second hypothesis confirmed that the more progressive legislation is, the less significant individual values are in formulating an attitude towards homosexuality. In other words, legislation must offset the influence of traditional values on perceiving a certain way of life, for example.
According to the reverse hypothesis, progressive legislation brings individual values to be stronger in accepting or not accepting homosexuality; that is, granting legal rights to homosexuals could pose an increased threat towards the status quo and destroy a traditional lifestyle. Accordingly, they would potentially be against the acceptance of homosexuality and legislation that protects the rights of gay men and lesbians.
Over the course of the study, the first approach was confirmed – people adapt their views to generally accepted norms. Tolerance towards homosexuality, as Peter Schmidt said, is higher in countries with a more progressive judicial system. “The more intensely legislation defends the rights of sexual minorities, the less effect individual values have. The legal frameworks change, and people change their attitude in order to avoid cognitive dissonance,” Schmidt said. In other words, legal policies moderate the public’s attitude towards homosexuality, the researchers believe.
Though the conclusion may appear predictable, the results of the research gave rise to many questions and comments. The head of the HSE’s Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, Eduard Ponarin, drew attention to the relationship between the values and demands of a society and the nature of legislation. Additionally, the laboratory’s academic supervisor, Ronald Inglehart, pointed out generational shifts that occur in views on homosexuality.